Anwar Ahmed Khan, who passed away on the second of May, is widely regarded as Pakistan hockey’s greatest centre-half. The midfield marshal played for Pakistan from 1956-66. He made vital contributions to the country’s early major successes. Tall and rangy, Anwar was a complete centre-half. He was an imperious pivot, never seemed to be in a hurry, utilised his immense reach to anticipate well and was a good stopper as well.
His distribution to forwards was excellent. He often employed deceptive passes. He had the unique ability to draw the opposing defence to one side and slip the ball in the other direction.
He used to move with his forwards during attacks and he himself scored goals in international games.
Blessed with indefatigable stamina, Anwar was always quick to fall back to assist the defence where his excellent checking helped foil many an opponent’s attacks.
At times, he seemed to appear from nowhere to salvage the situation when others had been beaten.
The legendary player arrived in this world in 1933. He was born in Bhopal, now the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Hockey was the most popular sport in Bhopal with boys playing the sport not only in grounds but also on roads.
The elite also took great interest in the game. Princess Abida Sultan, the ruler of the princely state, herself played the sport and patronised a club Noorus Saba for small children.
She developed a wonderful hockey ground near her palace, and the young Anwar played there for her club.
The ideal hockey environment brought his natural talent to the fore very soon. He excelled at the school. In 1949, at the young age of 16, Anwar was selected by Bhopal Wanderers, easily the best outfit of the city, who used to compete in All India tournaments. They played against strong provincial as well as departmental teams.
In 1950, like so many young Indian Muslims of the time, Anwar migrated to Pakistan. Luckily, the cream of the Bhopal hockey had already been playing for the Ali Autos team in Karachi. He fitted well in the star-studded team; and there was no looking back.
In 1952, Anwar appeared in his maiden national championships for Sindh. Railways, one of Pakistan’s premier departmental sides of the time, got impressed by the youngster’s talent and offered Anwar to join their hockey team. In his first nationals for Railways in 1954, Anwar caught the attention of the selectors and was called for the national camp for a home series against West Germany straight away. But an injury delayed his international debut, which was to arrive in Pakistan’s first-ever hockey glory.
Meanwhile, Anwar switched to Customs; he would play for them the rest of his domestic career.
He wore the national colours for the first time at the 1956 Olympics. The Melbourne event was very important for the country’s hockey.
Despite great expectations, Pakistan were a disappointment in their first two Olympics appearances, in 1948 and 1952, finishing fourth each time. That led to a lot of debate and an enquiry committee was formed. On its recommendations, a lot of changes were made to the domestic set up, the selection process and the management. The hockey squad at the 1956 Olympics didn’t disappoint as Pakistan made it to their first-ever Olympic final where they lost 0-1 to India. The only goal scored was a disputed one. The country had its first-ever Olympic medal of any hue. Anwar’s performance was magnificent throughout. In the final, his marking and tackling played a great role in not letting Indian forwards (who had scored a total of 10 goals in the last two Olympic finals) have their own way.
In the next mega event, the 1958 Asian Games, Pakistan met India in the last fixture of the tournament played as a single league. India, trailing on goal average, needed to win but the match ended without a goal. Pakistan won the gold, and India failed to win an international tournament for the first time.
The legendary Indian centre forward Balbir Singh, who had scored five goals in the 1948 final, an Olympic record for the final, paid tribute to Anwar in these words, “If India could have a centre half of Anwar Khan’s caliber, they would be as dominating as before.”
Anwar’s virtuoso display during Pakistan’s pre-Asiad tour of New Zealand captivated the hosts so much that the local newspapers gave him the sobriquet of “Rock of Gibraltar”.
Anwar’s and indeed Pakistan hockey’s finest moment arrived at the 1960 Olympics. At Rome, Pakistan dethroned India, the unbeaten Olympic champions since 1928.
Then by beating India 2-0 in the final of the 1962 Asian Games, Pakistan confirmed their superiority in the hockey world.
The Indian coach said: “Centre half Anwar gave outstanding performance and but for him, Pakistan’s defence would have been ineffectual.” He continued playing international hockey till 1966 but the 1964 Olympics was his last major tournament. Pakistan reached the final for the third consecutive time but lost to India 0-1 despite getting more goal scoring opportunities.
Anwar also had the honour to captain the national side on quite a few occasions, including the Hamburg International Festival in 1966, his last international outing.
From three Olympics, he had one gold and two silver medals. Both his appearances in the Asian Games fetched gold medals. Afterwards, Anwar served as manager, coach and chief selector of the national senior and junior teams.
As manager, his best moment came with Pakistan winning the gold at the 1974 Asiad. He also managed the team which lost the final of the 1975 World Cup against India.
He was married to a doctor. All his offspring are also in the medical profession. Son Adnan, who showed early promise at hockey, had to move abroad for his medical studies and that affected his growth in hockey. Still, he made a tour of Malaysia in 1986 with Pakistan Whites.
The government of Pakistan honoured the national hero with Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in 1966.
A hockey ground in Karachi is also named after the great player.
Articulate with Bhopali sweetness, Annu bhai, as he was affectionately called, was often seen giving comments on TV till recently, mostly lamenting the decline of Pakistan hockey.
Anwar’s name will remain enshrined in Pakistan’s sporting folklore for his tremendous role in Pakistan’s initial glories at the Olympics.